Friday, March 02, 2007

What is Tanach?

I had originally planned to post a great deal of material on Purim. Unfortunately, the exigencies of practical life over the past two weeks prevented that from happening. Be that as it may, I'd like to offer a few basic thoughts about the nature of Tanach in lieu of a more extensive presentation on the themes of Purim in particular.

It is well known that "Tanach" is not a monolithic entity. Its contents varied over time and were reconsidered and adjusted at several points in Rabbinic history. The Talmud tells us, for example, that the Rabbis debated whether or not to keep the books of Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes in the canon. They also argued about the precise status of some of the canonical books, such as the Book of Esther.

Many find this phenomenon troubling. After all, if a text is holy and presumed to be divinely inspired, why should it be excluded from Tanach? And if the holiness of the work itself is what is being questioned, how can logical argumentation in the Talmud serve to establish it? Jewish law cannot "rule" on an empirical fact, such as whether divine guidance played a role in the composition of a particular book!

We can sharpen our question further by asking what difference it makes whether a book is included or excluded from the canon. For example, did the Rabbis who maintained that the Book of Esther was not part of Tanach believe that reading Esther was a waste of time? Did the Rabbis that advocated removing Ecclesiastes or Ezekiel from the canon hold that studying these books would not be meaningful, or that their content was inaccurate or false? It is hard to accept such a conclusion, especially since, in the case of the Book of Esther, even those who held it was not part of the canon still agreed that it was a mitsvah to read it on Purim.

Study of the nature of Tanach leads us to another interesting problem. The Mishna in Masechet Megillah discusses the guidelines that must be observed in the preparation of Torah Scrolls, Megillot and books of the Prophets and Writings (Nach). All of these texts must be written on kosher parchment with kosher ink, etc. The difficulty is as follows: We know that there is a mitsvah to write a Torah scroll. Similarly, Megillot must be written in order to be used for the mitsvah of reading the Megillah on Purim. Therefore, it makes sense that there are halachic principles that dictate the mechanics of composing these texts.

However, there is no mitsvah at all to read most of the books of Tanach, at least not publicly. Being that there is no commandment to read from these volumes, and therefore no mitsvah to write them, how can there be halachic guidelines as to their preparation?

Indeed, the Rabbis themselves seemed ambivalent about the value of Tanach. Several statements of Chazal declare that the entirety of the Bible was given at Sinai, implying that its importance is on par with that of the Torah itself. Other statements suggest that the Prophets and Writings will be eliminated in the Messianic era, and that only the Torah and the Book of Esther will remain (this view is in fact codified by Maimonides at the end of Hilchot Megillah). How can we reconcile these contradictory perspectives on the Bible?

In order to resolve these difficulties, we must address the most basic question of all: Why does Tanach exist in the first place? We can understand the need for Torat Moshe, which provides us with a theological framework and a system of commandments to abide by. But what purpose is served by additional holy books?

I would suggest that the ultimate goal of all Jewish learning is the proper comprehension of Torah, i.e., the Five Books of Moses. It is the Torah of Moshe that includes, explicitly or implicitly, all of the ideas that comprise God's prophetic message to the people of Israel. However, bringing out the latent content of the Torah is no simple matter. In fact, its true meaning can be obscured by a variety of factors, such as the intellectual ability of its students, the influence of current cultural trends, etc. It is precisely to form a "bridge" between the comprehension of a given generation of Jews and the ideational content of the Torah that the Nach comes into existence. The books of the Prophets and Writings revolve around themes that are present in the Torah in some form but were deemed by the Baalei Hamesorah to require a "fleshing out", a separate "academic course" dedicated to them in their own right.

Examples of this kind of phenomenon abound in secular culture. Despite the bold proclamation that "all men are created equal", our country tolerated slavery and discrimination against women for hundreds of years. Many tracts were written detailing the incongruence and hypocrisy inherent in this state of affairs, until it was finally comprehended by the common man and a shift in cultural attitudes ensued. Nowadays, most of those important texts have become obsolete historical relics. They are no longer studied in depth because their message has already been internalized by the average person, who perceives their truths naturally in the simple words "all men are created equal".

Similarly, the Torah teaches the ideal of a wise life of prudence and justice. This is implicit in the Torah's narratives and commandments, and, in the proper cultural context, this overarching principle would be obvious to its readers. Nevertheless, King Solomon saw fit to author two books - Ecclesiastes and Proverbs - in which he expounded upon these themes at length. He understood that a separate "curriculum" was necessary for these ideas alone, and that such a study had to be completed in order for the average person to grasp the true import of the Torah's lessons.

Thus, the concept of Tanach is not a differentiation between meaningful/inspired books and meaningless or secular ones. Rather, a book is "inducted" into Tanach when the Baale Mesora determine that, if the Torah is to be understood properly, this additional book must have a separate course of study dedicated to it as well.

In this sense, becoming a book of Tanach is more a function of the laws of Torah Study than of a particular book's intrinsic value. A divinely inspired book may not demand a separate activity of learning and analysis just by virtue of its holiness. In some cases, it may be excluded from Tanach because the Rabbis think it will interfere with the correct understanding of Torah in their generation. Similarly, a non-inspired book like Proverbs may still be seen as an indispensible "course" in the Talmud Torah curriculum, despite its lack of "holiness".


The fact that these texts demand a process of learning in their own right is reflected in the halachic principle that they must be committed to writing in the same fashion as a Torah Scroll. They become an additional component of the Written Torah; therefore, although there is no specific commandment to write them, when they are written it must be done in a manner that demonstrates their special status.

What, then, is the status of a holy book that is rejected from Tanach? I would argue that, rather than robbing it of importance or significance, this merely relegates its contents to the status of Oral Torah, of useful commentary that may shed light on the meaning of other books in the canon. The Book of Esther is an excellent example of this. It is dedicated to a theme that is repeated numerous times in Tanach - the struggle with Amaleq. If it had not been officially accepted as part of the canon, it would have remained a very important, divinely inspired addendum to the presentations of this theme elsewhere in the Bible. It would have been read and studied, not as a course in its own right, but as a source of clarification and elucidation of the concept of Amaleq that is mentioned in the Torah and in the Book of Samuel. And, of course, it would have remained the central focus of the Purim celebration!

This also clarifies how the Rabbis could debate the inclusion or exclusion of particular works from Tanach. They were not engaged in arguments about the value of those texts, or their status vis a vis divine inspiration. What concerned the Sages was whether those books were necessary "courses" in the Torah curriculum of their generation. In some cases, the analysis revolved around whether involvement in certain texts would prevent people from attaining true knowledge of the Torah and its commandments. Whatever the case might have been, the Rabbis never questioned the accuracy or validity of any of the holy books in their possession. The issues they grappled with were halachic, not theological or empirical.

This approach is supported by the Rambam who, in his Laws of Torah Study, emphasizes that the Prophets and Writings are considered parts of the Written Torah. It is noteworthy that he establishes this classification in the context of the laws of learning Torah - and, specifically, while dealing with the correct Torah study schedule. This suggests that the distinction between Written and Oral Torah has more to do with the proper allocation of study time than with the intrinsic importance of the subject matter assigned to each category. Only texts that generate their own, independent obligation of Torah study are granted membership in the canon of Tanach. Other books, however profound and beautiful, are to be utilized as interpretive tools in the process of exploration of Biblical literature.

This is why the Rabbis can simultaneously claim that the entire Tanach was given at Sinai, and then state that all of the Prophets and Writings, save Esther, will one day be obsolete. The thematic principles of Tanach are all rooted in the Torah itself, they derive from Sinai. However, our need for separate courses of study to elucidate and deepen our grasp of these principles - that is, the fact that we cannot access them directly through study and interpretation of the Five Books of Moses - is a function of our spiritual weakness at this point in history. In Messianic times, the level of Torah study will be such that no other "Books" will be necessary - we will have Torat Moshe alone, and all other writings will serve as commentary.

In summary, aside from the Torah, the composition of Tanach is not divinely established, and inclusion or exclusion from Tanach is not a reflection of the truth or importance of any particular book. The structure of Torah literature - what attains the status of Written Torah and what does not - is purely a function of the educational needs of each generation, as determined by the Masters of the Torah Tradition. This determination impacts the process, order and format of Torah study, but not necessarily its scope.

35 comments:

avakesh said...

I reviewed this topic and came to a somewhat similar but also a bit different conclusion, at http://www.avakesh.com/2006/12/why_neviim_and_.html
and
http://www.avakesh.com/2006/12/what_is_nach_fo.html

Yehuda said...

I enjoyed seeing this idea in print. I really like the slavery example, it is an excellent mashal.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Great post!

Here I must disagree:

>If it had not been officially accepted as part of the canon, it would have remained a very important, divinely inspired addendum to the presentations of this theme elsewhere in the Bible. It would have been read and studied, not as a course in its own right, but as a source of clarification and elucidation of the concept of Amaleq that is mentioned in the Torah and in the Book of Samuel. And, of course, it would have remained the central focus of the Purim celebration!

Although, as you say, those who argued against its sanctity (the technical term being whether the book defiles the hands, which biblical books do, or not) probably did not intend to remove it from the Purim liturgy in all likelihood in time precisely that would have happened. Apart from sifrei Chazal are there any other ancient Hebrew works which are used in a way as you described? Even Megillat Taanit, has fallen into practical oblivion. Another example would be Sepher Ben Sira which did not even survive to the present day in Hebrew, and yet it was apparently regarded as, if not biblical, canonical by some of Chazal. The definitive work on the subject is Rabbi Dr Shnayer Leiman's PhD dissertation (which was published in book form; I got mine from amazon.ca) on the "Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence." In it he proposes a definition of canonical which includes biblical books and non-bilblical books. To him "canonical" means works which are authoritative for religious practice and thought. They may be inspired, and if so are part of the Bible. Or they may not be (like the Mishna). Sometimes non-inspired canonical works achieve a kind of quasi-inspired status (again, like the Mishna). But other times they fade away--like Ben Sira, which is quoted by some tannaim with terms like "she-neemar" or "de-khetiv."

In any case, you are right that a book's inspired status did not imply automatic inclusion in the biblical canon. The rabbinic tradition was that there were many more inspired works than the 24 books that make up the Bible. In theory, Yechezkel could be inspired but not canonical. I think it also bears mentioning that there is a rabbinic tradition that if not for sin only the Torah and sepher Yehoshua would be the Bible.

Bill Selliger said...

Really nice post. A few comments:

1) Many religious scholars have tackled this topic; including R’ T.H. Chajes and R’ R. Margolious. I can provide more detailed citations if you’re interested.

2) For a topic like this, treated at length as you have, footnotes (with sources) would be helpful.

3) See Rashi to Taanis 9a, d"h v’lo ramza.

4) You write: “What, then, is the status of a holy book that is rejected from Tanach? I would argue that, rather than robbing it of importance or significance, this merely relegates its contents to the status of Oral Torah, of useful commentary that may shed light on the meaning of other books in the canon”. You ignore the Rabbinic dictum of Sanhedrin 90a (elaborated at 100b, and other places that escape me now as well).

5) Dr. Sid Leiman’s thesis may be of interest to you. It’s called “The Talmudic And Midrashic Evidence For The Canonization Of Hebrew Scripture”.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Thanks Mississippi Fred and Bill for the reference to S. Leiman's work; I will have to try and get my hands on it.

M. Fred, in my post - hastily constructed, as it was, on Erev Shabbat - I admittedly did not include some important citations, such as the one you concluded your comment with. However, in defense of my position about Esther - I was basing myself on the Tosafot in Megillah that says that, according to the view that it was not canonized (lo nitna likatev), it still had to be written down miderabbanan to comply with the requirements of the mitsvah of keriyat Hamegillah, requirements which seem to be unanimously accepted in Shas despite the disagreement about canonization.

If not for the mitsvah to read Megillah on Purim, you are probably correct that, as a non-canonical work, it would have had slim chances of surviving. On the other hand, we see that Sefer Hamakabim, for example, is still extant, probably because of its relationship to the holiday of Chanukkah which entered the framework of Torah Shebal Peh and normative halachic practice. So it is difficult to predict with certainty what the Megillah's fate might have been.

I tend to distinguish sharply between Mishna and Tanach, because I see an important difference between the function of Torah Shebichtav and Torah Shebal Peh. Torah Shebichtav is inspired literature, while Torah Shebal Peh is primarily conceptual and ideational and has been "reduced" to text form for practical reasons.

Still, I will try to take a look at Leiman's thesis as soon as I can.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Bill,

Again, thanks for the direction to S. Leiman's book.

In terms of citations and footnotes - inasmuch as the post was composed "b'hipazon" on Friday afternoon, I was unable to add them. But I will take your advice to heart for the future!

With reference to the "Sefarim Hahitsonim" of Masechet Sanhedrin - I do not believe that all books excluded from the canon were automatically classified as "sefarim hitsonim".

My understanding is that this appellation was mainly applied to books that were rejected because they contained objectionable content of some sort, such as Sefer Ben Sira, parts of which are described by the Rabbis as foolish.

I would definitely love further citations and "he-arot" when you have the time. This is a subject that interests me greatly.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I absolutely agree that the position which did not see Esther as part of what we call Tanakh probably intended for Esther to be read on Purim anyway. Nevertheless, I believe we have good reason to conclude that the practice would not have survived to the present if the book was not canonical. Think of the many normative practices in Megillat Taanit which fell by the wayside. Realize that although reading the Megillah is midivrei sopherim it is also "biblical" because it is part of Tanakh. What if it weren't?

As for Siphrei Hamakabim, these did *not* survive in Hebrew to the present. Rather, they faded away into obscurity and were preserved only in Greek by the Church. It was only later that they were translated into Hebrew, which we now have at our disposal. Presumably the reason they didn't survive is because they were not siphrei Chazal and gradually the Jews put aside virtually all pre-Chazalic works which aren't the 24 books of Tanakh! As I said earlier, some of these works (okay, at least one, Ben Sira) was a sepher chashuv to some of Chazal. Yet that too disappeared, being preserved only in Greek (and translated into Hebrew in the late 18th century) with an original Hebrew manuscript being discovered in the Cairo Genizah in the late 19th century.

Given this, I think it is reasonable to suppose that Esther needed to be in Nakh to "make it" to the present. Either way, I concede it's conjecture!

You are righ to distinguish between different kinds of canonical work. Leiman does as well. But for him the word "canonical" doesn't mean only Tanakh. Since the term "canon" in no way appears in our own literature, nor does canonical, his definition merely seeks to categorize authoritative religious works rather than place them on an equal footing in a way that couldn't be justified by tradition (although in a sense it could be, since according to tradition there isn't really a distinction between Torah she-be-al peh and Torah she-be-khetav--not only that, we have evidence from the medieval period that mishnayos were read with teamim).

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

M. Fred,

I hear what you're saying about Megillat Taanit, on the surface it seems like a good analogy to Purim, except that it is unclear whether the practices prescribed in M.T. were ever universally accepted by the community. It is actually kind of hard to imagine that the average person observed all of the restrictions in it. But we can agree that speculation about what the fate of Esther might have been is only conjecture. I tend to think that its halachic significance would have preserved it in some form.

Interesting observation about the Sifrei Hamakabim; I was not aware of their history.

although in a sense it could be, since according to tradition there isn't really a distinction between Torah she-be-al peh and Torah she-be-khetav--

In terms of their authoritative status, true. But their function, and especially their "texts", are clearly distinguished. Nobody believes Hashem told Moshe, "Rebbi Yehuda Omer...." Text and "perush" are conceptually separate though mutually dependent and each is equally indispensible when it comes to proper understanding and observance.

not only that, we have evidence from the medieval period that mishnayos were read with teamim

You reveal your Ashkenazi bias here! Many Sephardic communities (for example, Syrians) still read Mishnah according to a special teamim-like maqam, just as they read Sefarim like Iyov, Tehillim, and Mishle with teamim that are derived from specific Arabic maqamim.

If you attend a Middle Eastern synagogue on Friday night and listen to Bameh Madliqin you will hear it.

Chaim B. said...

Gemara in Nedarim says had Yisrael not sinned they would have received only the 5 books of Torah and Sefer Yehoshua (to know the bounderies of Eretz Yisrael).

The Ritv"a in Meg 7 answers Tos question with a twist that adds to your thesis. Acc to Tos, either a text is canonical or it has no significance except to avoid the issur of reciting oral torah by heart. Acc. to Ritva, there are two categories: torah preserved in written form as a sefer, and written Torah which was canonized as part of Tanach. There may have been other significant written books which were never part of the canon (but nonetheless are distinct from orla torah). The Brisker Rav (ch hagri"z al harambam) discusses this ritva at length with many proofs.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>You reveal your Ashkenazi bias here! Many Sephardic communities (for example, Syrians) still read Mishnah according to a special teamim-like maqam, just as they read Sefarim like Iyov, Tehillim, and Mishle with teamim that are derived from specific Arabic maqamim.

>If you attend a Middle Eastern synagogue on Friday night and listen to Bameh Madliqin you will hear it.

Ouch, I'm not that bad. :) I actually have prayed in Middle Eastern batei knesset and have heard it. I just didn't think to connect it with the old custom, since the bameh madlikin is liturgical, while this custom is for limmud. In addition, old Mishna manuscripts actually contain teamim notations!

That aside, it may well be that the present mizrahi minhag is the remnant of that. :)

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

M. Fred,

The Syrians consider the tune for Bameh Madlikin to be the tune for Mishnah in general. So, although it is liturgical in function, and the rendition of it is sometimes spiced up a little bit in honor of Qabbalat Shabbat, it is essentially the traditional mode of chanting Mishnah.

This is consistent with the general Sephardic approach - we read most pesuqim with teamim, whether Torah, Tehillim, etc., even in the context of Tefillah.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Chaim,

I believe another commentator pointed out the Gemara about Sefer Yehoshua, etc. I was aware of that but in my haste I was compelled to be brief and threw the material together quickly, not necessarily incorporating all relevant mareh mekomot.

I appreciate the Ritva and Griz citations, they are very relevant to this subject and I need to take a closer look at them.

bill selliger said...

For the attitudes of the Rabbis to the Apocrypha, see the many quotations cited in Dr. Leiman's thesis - as mentioned - and R' R. Margolious: Yesod Hamishna v'Arichasa, Ch. 1.

For more on the relationship between Chumash and Na”ch, see Netziv: Kidmas Ha’eimek Ch. 2 – who essentially develops and expounds on the theme mentioned in the Rashi cited above, which you seemed to pick up on as well. Additionally, Maharitz Chiyus devotes an entire book-length essay to the status of the laws that are found in Na”ch and not in the Chumash – Ma’amar Toras Neve’im Divrei Kabala. The same ideas are amplified there as well. Fair warning: both compositions are quite lengthy.

If you don't have these in your collection, the Yeshiva in Silver Spring on Arcola Ave. (not too far from Rockville) should have them; they have a very good library (assembled with the help of the now world-renown Dan Rabinowitz).

Finally, I couldn't help but notice the irony: You write "Nevertheless, King Solomon saw fit to author two books - Ecclesiastes and Proverbs - in which he expounded upon these themes at length." My friend, King Solomon wrote at least one more such compilation - called "Wisdom of Solomon" - which is now considered an Apocryphal work!

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Bill, thank you for all of the mareh mekomot.

Are we certain that the Rabbis held Solomon to be the author of the Wisdom of Solomon? It may be that this was a later, pseudopigraphical work that the Anshe Kenesset Hagedolah didn't even possess.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I don't have that Netziv but I do have the Maharitz and I am aware of his basic approach.

bill selliger said...

Are we certain that the Rabbis held Solomon to be the author of the Wisdom of Solomon?

See R' Naftali Hertz Weisel's introduction to sefer Chochmas Shlomo, where he proves that the author was indeed King Solomon.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Fascinating!

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